Georgia state senator Burt Jones wants the state of Georgia to take over the operation of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. He has sponsored a resolution that forms a committee to study the feasibility of the State of Georgia taking control of the world’s busiest airport. The rationale for the study and a takeover include the vitality that Hartsfield-Jackson provides to the traveling national and international public; the role the airport plays in the economic development of the state; and the increase in the public welfare, national security, and economic stability such a transfer could bring to Georgians.
I have lived in Atlanta for ten years and like thousands of this city’s residents have flown numerous times from Hartsfield-Jackson International for business and pleasure. Given Atlanta’s role as a headquarters town for a number of Fortune 500 companies, host of a major freight train terminal, a movie making and entertainment hub, and the capital of the largest state east of Mississippi River in terms of land size, I am not surprised that it is a lever in Georgia’s economic growth.
When you combine airport, airline, security, concession, and state and federal activities, Hartsfield-Jackson International plays host to the 63,000 people that make these activities happen. Delta, Georgia’s largest private employer, puts 33,000 people to work statewide and claims an economic impact on the state of $43.5 billion. Hartsfield-Jackson International claims an impact of $34.8 billion on the metro Atlanta economy.
Delta also claims to contribute $200 million a year toward Hartsfield-Jackson International’s operation expenses and that its direct flights out of Atlanta supports $11 billion in foreign direct investment. This foreign direct investment has led to the creation of 42,000 jobs throughout the state.
By law, Mr Jones can make his power grab. Under the Georgia Constitution, cities have the authority to provide certain services including terminal and docking services such as those provided by an airport. This power is further expressed in state statutes where cities can acquire, construct, maintain, and control airport facilities. The State, however, can enact laws relative to the authority cities have to provide services including, by my reading, airport services. The General Assembly, by general law, can regulate, restrict, or limit Atlanta’s authority to provide these services. The General Assembly, however, cannot withdraw these powers.
This is where Mr Jones may run into trouble. First, he should explain to the public how the city of Atlanta is failing to meet the State’s public welfare via the way it operates the airport. He should also be made to explain how transferring operations of the airport to the State will increase national security. On the economic front, will State operation of Hartsfield-Jackson International increase the number of employees in Georgia? Will foreign direct investment increase as a result of Georgia taken over operations?
Would Georgia taking control of Hartsfield-Jackson International be constitutional? Under the constitution, Atlanta’s authority to acquire, maintain, and operate an airport cannot be withdrawn. Although the State can regulate and limit this authority, how far can it go in its regulation before it crosses that constitutional line in the sand?
Finally, from the legal to the political, does Mr Jones want to inadvertently escalate tensions between Delta and the State? Delta has already lost a $50 million per year fuel tax exemption because it took a stance on another political issue, the sale of semi-automatic weapons. Is Delta willing to swap out a seemingly amicable working relationship with the city of Atlanta for a potentially hostile working relationship with a landlord that jacked up its rent?
Rather than deal day in and day out with a new and hostile landlord, why wouldn’t Delta exercise its options to move its headquarters elsewhere? It could argue that the State’s takeover was a force de majuere resulting in voiding its 20-year lease agreement. Even if it didn’t move its headquarters wholesale, it could drastically reduce its exposure to Atlanta, including subletting significant number of gates and moving employees to other hubs.
And let’s not forget Amazon who may view Georgia’s political play makers as immature and creating a level of business uncertainty that makes Atlanta and Georgia less welcoming.